Roberts Rough Stuff long term test

The Roberts Rough Stuff is an expedition touring bike. It is meant to be very tough and to be able to withstand off-road excursions, as long as they aren't too technical.

This is a review of my own bike, and I have chosen every single bit of equipment on it. Thus you'll find some unusual things in its setup. With any amount of luck I'll be able to justify them.

Frame

The most obvious feature of the Rough Stuff frame is that it looks like a mountain bike frame. It takes 26" MTB wheels and has a sloping top tube. It is meant to handle off-road better than your standard touring bike, but it is by no means a simple mountain bike.

There are several significant differences between this and a mountain bike frame. First, the bottom bracket is quite low, 26cm off the ground. This allows a low center of gravity for the rider, making for a more stable ride. Second, the fork is made with traditional methods rather than the ubiquitous unicrown found on MTBs. In addition it is just long enough to hold the wheel and allow mudguard clearance, and no longer. Most rigid MTBs come with extra-long "suspension ready" forks, allowing a swap to suspension forks without upsetting the geometry of the fork. Roberts assumes that if you're interested in expedition touring you won't want a suspension fork, so he doesn't make allowances for the swap. Third, the chainstays are quite long to allow a stable ride and to allow the use of large rear panniers without catching the rider's heels.

The frame is custom built for me. It is made from Columbus Nivacrom, a fairly high-class steel. The tubes are slightly oversized and have thicker walls than the usual steel bike. This is for a bit of added stiffness and crash resistance. I haven't crashed much with it, but I can comment on the stiffness. My previous touring bike was made of Tange cromoly using a lightweight, small-diameter tubeset. When it was loaded with touring gear I couldn't stand up to pedal because the frame would flex alarmingly. The Roberts has enough lateral stiffness to prevent this.

The tubes are fillet brazed, resulting in very smooth looking joints. Fillet brazing is used instead of lugs because the top tube is sloping, and appropriate lugs aren't available. The paint (in a lovely shade called flamboyant blue) seems durable enough, only chipping with sizable impacts.

Braze-ons abound. There are three water bottle mounts, and large water bottles can be used in the two on the interior of the front triangle despite the small size of the frame. The bottle cage on the seat tube straddles the front derailleur clip in order to allow this.

The angles of the bike are fairly slack. I can get the seat nicely back while putting the seat clamp in middle of the saddle rails. The top tube is slightly longer than I wanted it. I asked for a 50cm top tube, but Roberts made it 51.5cm. He said that with the shorter top tube I wouldn't have space to put a really big tire on it. I'll have more comments on this below.

Wheels

The most obvious feature of the front wheel is the Schmidt hub dynamo at its center. A dynamo is a very practical way to provide light while touring, as you don't need to worry about batteries, and the resulting light is fairly bright. The Schmidt hub dynamo is the best made, with low rolling resistance when the light is on and almost none when it's off (see Chris Juden's Dynotest). There are 36 double-butted (14/15/14 gauge) DT stainless spokes, and the rim is a Mavic 517. While the spokes are ideal for the task, the rim is not the best choice. This is Mavic's top of the line cross-country racing rim, and the sidewalls are fairly thin. They won't wear through too fast because the Rough Stuff will be used mainly on the road. Nevertheless a better choice of rim would be the Mavic 618, a cross-country rim with more metal in the sidewalls, or even the cheaper X221.

The rear wheel has again 36 double-butted DT stainless spokes. The hub is Shimano Deore XT and the rear rim is a Ritchey OCR Pro. OCR stands for Off Center Rim, and it means that the spoke holes are offset from the center line of the rim. When built up so that the holes are offset towards the non-drive side, the drive-side spokes end up less vertical and the non-drive side spokes a bit more vertical. This braces the rim better, resulting in a stronger wheel. See Strong Durable Bike Wheels for more information. Like the front rim, the rear rim has fairly thin sidewalls, but rims with offset spoke holes are not too common, so I didn't have very much choice.

Equipment

The headset is a Stronglight Delta. This has nice needle bearings and seems to work fine. One annoyance with it is that the locknut at the top of the stack seems to be slightly smaller than 32mm, so you risk rounding it if you use a standard headset wrench to adjust it. I end up using a humongous adjustable spanner instead.

The bike has three chainrings and 8 cogs in back. I didn't even consider a nine-speed setup because 9-speed chains are narrower and weaker.

The shifters are SRAM Attack shifters. I used Gripshift style shifters because I wanted the ability to trim the front derailleur, and Shimano Rapidfire shifters don't allow this. The Attack shifters allowed me to keep my trusty Deore XT derailleur; if I'd used one of SRAM's ESP shifters I'd have to buy a new one. They seem to work reasonably well, but I'm not completely happy with them. First, they require a fair bit of effort to shift, and once you get them moving they tend to keep shifting, so I often shift several gears at a time when I only wanted to change one down or up. Second, they have a fairly large diameter, and I find them uncomfortable to hold. Finally, a good many of the numbers have worn off the shifters.

I have SRAM ESP 5.0 shifters on my Scott Tigua. I like these much better. They use a 1:1 ratio (1mm of cable pulled results in 1mm of rear derailleur movement) rather than the 1:2 ration used in Shimano systems. It requires less effort to shift the gears, and I have to turn the grip further to get it to shift. Both of the factors result in easier shifting and less overshooting. In addition, the diameter of the grip on the ESP 5.0 shifters is smaller, allowing a more comfortable hand position. I am considering swapping the Attack shifters for ESP shifters, even though it would require a new rear derailleur. One argument against this swap is that if the SRAM derailleur breaks out in the middle of nowhere, it might be very difficult to find a replacement, while Shimano spares should be easy to find.

The seatpost is a nice two-bolt type that makes adjusting saddle position a breeze. The rack is made by Topeak and is very sturdy, although it should have included stainless steel mounting hardware. The bolts included have gone quite rusty.

Gears

I have a non-compact MTB chainset on with 26-38-48 chainrings, and a 11-28 cassette. While this gearing is perfect for day rides without luggage, they are higher than is desirable for touring. I often found myself pedalling away in my lowest gear at low revs for long periods of time while going up hills in Ireland. The 22-32-42 chainrings I had while touring in Wales seemed appropriate, so I may swap this chainset for a compact MTB one.

Comfort

The bike currently sports MTB flat bars. Initially I had it set up with drop bars. However, I need a fairly upright position on the bike as I suffer from tennis elbow (too many years of abusing my hands and arms with incorrect typing practices). In order to get more or less comfortable on the bike, I had to put on it an extremely tall stem with a very short reach on it. This resulted in a very short distance from my hands to the steering axis, making the steering extremely fast, which is not good for a touring bike! Even with this, though, the bike has enough inherent stability that once I adjusted to the fast steering I was able to ride it safely and confidently.

The Compact Clubman that I tested for Cycling Plus actually suited my needs to be upright more than my own Rough Stuff: with the CC I could achieve my desired posture with a standard stem with no rise to it and a decent forward extension. Initially this irritated me a great deal. One of the reasons I wanted MTB wheels on my touring bike was so that I could have a short top tube, allowing handlebars that are quite close to me, but the CC with its 700c wheels has a shorter effective top tube than my Rough Stuff!

However, as time went on and I did long-distance rides with my Rough Stuff, I found that even with a high close handlebar position, drop bars aren't as good for me as flat bars. Somehow the palms-down position I get with MTB bars puts less stress on my elbows than the palms-inward position resulting from drop bars. So before I did my first real tour on it (around Ireland) I replaced the drop bars with straight ones. Suddenly, the top tube wasn't long enough for the stems I had in my stock, and I had use a reasonably long, low-rise MTB stem with an Adheadset stem adapter to get the bars in the right place.

To allow myself a good selection of hand positions, I installed bar ends with a sharp angle in them. These have a short extension more or less parallel to the handlebars, giving me a handhold that stretches me out a fair bit.

The saddle is a Specialized MTB saddle from about '95. It has a perforated leather top, which soaks up water easily, so I have to put a plastic bag on it whenever I get off it in the rain. I put up with this without complaint since these saddles (I have two of them) fit my bum far better than and other saddle I have tried. They are fairly narrow, so they don't rub my thighs, but wide enough at back to give a platform for my sit bones. They have just the right amount of padding: they support my sit bones well enough that the pressure doesn't go where it isn't wanted, but there is enough padding to soften the shocks. Maybe someday I'll find another saddle that works so well for me, but until then I'll just hope that these ones don't break.

The bike absorbs road bumps reasonably well. Undoubtedly a good portion of this is down to the tires I use. Currently the bike has Schwalbe Marathon 1.75" tires inflated to 65 pounds, and the thinnest tires I've use on it are Tioga City Slicker 1.25" tires inflated to 75 pounds. These provide much more cushioning than narrower tires with a higher pressure.

The long wheelbase (102cm) of the bike helps to smooth out bumps as well: the long chainstays mean that the seat is proportionally further than rear wheel than in a bike with short chainstays.

In addition, while the bike is more stiff than my previous touring bike, it still has a bit of flex to it. This seems to help dampen bumps out a bit, although it is probably less of an effect than the first two.

Summary

The way I have it set up now, my Rough Stuff is almost perfect for touring. As I mentioned above, it needs lower gears, and it might be nice to have SRAM ESP shifters instead of the Attack shifters. But the frame itself is perfect, despite my initial misgivings about the top tube being slightly longer than I had asked for. If I could only have one bike, this would have to be it.

The Rivals

The most obvious rivals to the Rough Stuff are the Thorn 26" wheeled bikes. These come in quite a variety of types: from fast-handing short wheelbase types to expedition tourers like my Rough Stuff. They aren't custom built, but they come in such a huge variety of sizes (including a choice of short, medium, or long top tube) that just about anyone could get a perfect fit on one of them. Unfortunately they cost almost as much as a custom Rough Stuff fitted out in Roberts' preferred kit (including Campag Ergo shift/brake levers).

Orbit also make 26" wheeled touring bikes, the Romany and Mercury. The Romany is most like the Rough Stuff and is somewhat less expensive. It's virtually unique among bikes in having an offset rear triangle to eliminate dish in the rear wheel, resulting in a much stronger rear wheel. The Mercury is pretty much a miniature Romany, and is aimed at women and other small riders. It is kitted out with more basic parts, bringing the cost way down. This is definitely a bike to look at if you're a small person on a budget.

Dawes make a 26" wheeled touring bike called the Sardar. I don't like it as much as the others I've mentioned for several reasons, mainly because the top tube even on the smallest bike is drastically too long. I simply could not ride it with drop bars.

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